The hip-hop landscape can be a cluttered and chaotic world to navigate. Every day presents a barrage of fresh material. New tracks! New videos! New mixtapes! New collaborations! New remixes! It's impossible to keep up. It seems that for many rappers sleepwalking through a random verse in order to keep his or her name in the blog headlines is more important than delivering fully realized material.
Black Milk is not contributing to this climate of noise. The Detroit rapper and producer (ne Curtis Cross) prefers that his statements carry a little more clout.
"I'm the kind of artist that would rather drop more quality than quantity," says the 27-year-old, still a bit jet lagged after just returning from a successful Australian tour. "I'd rather give you that one joint that's gonna be timeless, that you're gonna keep playing instead of just leaking out mediocre songs so people can keep seeing my name."
Black Milk's 2010 release, "Album of the Year," is precisely that kind of album. His fifth full-length, it is his strongest batch of songs to date, a hip-hop album that maintains the genre's classic feel while bringing something new to the table. By using live drums and occasional horn blasts alongside his usual sturdy beats, there's an organic feel but also a vibrant pulse that beats through the songs. It combines the flowing sound of hip-hop live favorites the Roots and the carefully curated beats of late Detroit producer J Dilla, an underground legend of whom Black Milk is a clear disciple.
The album also features Black Milk's strongest performance of his career on the mike. It's one with surprising emotional depth, particularly for a someone known as a producer first and a rapper second. In short, it's a refreshing throwback to the basic building blocks of hip-hop - good beats, good rhymes and good stories with none of the overblown braggadocio that runs rampant these days.
Wait. It's called "Album of the Year" and it's not boastful?
"Of course there's other dope artists out there. It was just a play on words, people took it how they took it. But I just feel that my team - we do this music [expletive] for real."
The main motivation for the title was literal - a reflection of what he had lived through.
"If you actually listen to the music, I'm kind of talking about a lot of different things that happened in my life - ups and downs - that happened in that year's time," he says. "So that was the main meaning behind the title."
The ups included success and stardom on the heels of his 2008 release, "Tronic." The downs? The death of collaborator and friend Baatin (a fellow Detroit underground rapper, from the group Slum Village) and his manager's near-fatal stroke. Those rough patches took a toll, but it's clear from listening to such songs as "Distortion" and "Closed Chapter" that they inspired the album's most compelling moments.
So as many of his peers were flooding the market with instantly forgettable throwaways, Black Milk was toiling on his masterpiece. The injection of live instrumentation was the key difference compared with his early work but one that made sense. For one, he had been touring with a drummer and keyboardist for a couple of years, and incorporating them into an album was the next logical step. More important, Black Milk wanted to keep moving forward with his artistic vision.
"I always want to make something different," he says. "That's the first thing on my mind when I approach a new project. How can I make this different than my last project?" As the organic sound of "Album of the Year" began to come into focus, it caught Black Milk a little off guard. "It sounded different, even for us," he says. But soon he became comfortable with a sound that distinguished him from the masses while at the same time fulfilling his vision.
And Black Milk will continue to move forward, even if there's no evidence in the form of daily updates. With a studio in his house, he's constantly creating. "It's kind of impossible not to," he says. "I wake up and walk in the next room, yeah, there it is."
On those rare occasions when Black Milk's name does show up in the blog headlines, pay attention. He's putting it out there for a reason.
"When they see my name they know it's going to be some heat."
- David Malitz, Feb. 2011